L’Atalante (1934): Jean Vigo’s Masterpiece–Life of a New Couple

Jean Vigo’s l934 masterpiece, L’Atalante, celebrates a mature relationship: the survival of a new marriage in the face of initial difficulties and quarrels.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)


1990 re-release poster by Michel Gondry

The life of the new couple (played by Jean Daste and Dita Parlo), cooped up on the barge with an older mate (the amazing Michel Simon), has the harsh feel of reality.

The movie was daring for its time: The couple’s sensual need for each other when they are separated is conveyed with honesty and directness, that no other director attempted in the early l930s. The film also shows a rare sight of France during the Depression: prostitution; queues of the hopeless and unemployed; a starving thief beaten by a well-dressed bourgeois.

Vigo approached his film with great realistic detail, showing the clumsiness of passion and the inarticulateness of two simple people from very different worlds. But there is no trace of condescension. Vigo’s ability to move effortlessly between reality and fantasy and thereby create a unique poetry is most notable. The film features an exquisite, sharply defined black-and-white cinematography by Boris Kaufman (later Oscar winner for On the Waterfront). Shot largely on location, the camera work beautifully captures the feeling of life aboard a barge.

Vigo, the ill-fated director, died of tuberculosis at the age of 28, after supervising the editing of the movie from his sickbed. But the director’s impending death is never apparent in the movie, which is a hymn to life. Vigo became celebrated posthumously on the basis of only two feature films and a documentary. His 1933 film Zero de conduite, which depicted a student revolt at a boys’ school, was banned in France until 1945 for its views of authority and religion

A work of unique poetic power, L’Atalante contains humor, fantasy and imagination. The fact that it is Vigo’s sole completed feature does not lessen his status as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. L’Atalante blends naturalism and surrealism in a masterpiece that anticipated the neorealist movement in cinema by a decade.


Directed by Jean Vigo
Produced by Jacques-Louis Nounez
Written by Jean Vigo, Albert Riéra, based on an original scenario by Jean Guinée
Music by Maurice Jaubert
Cinematography Boris Kaufman
Edited by Louis Chavance

Production company: Argui-Films

Distributed by Gaumont Film Company

Preview: April 25, 1934
Initial release: September 12, 1934

Running time: 65 minutes (original release); 89 minutes (restored version)
Country France